Archive for the 'Style' Category

People Standing Around Talking About How Busy They Are

Everyone is in a hurry these days. And everyone talks about how everyone is in a hurry. I was re-reading Bruce Boyer’s True Style tonight to relax. He made me think about the connection between sprezzatura and manners. He writes:

It’s an important lesson we seem to have forgotten, this idea that civility rests on the little lie, the sin of omission, the harmless compliment, the overlooked slight, the tiny fabrication, the artful ability to conceal effort and inappropriate passions. These little niceties – manners, they used to be called – are the grease on the wheels of social friction. […] Sprezzatura is a matter of reaching for perfection, while cultivating the impression of never having given it a thought. It’s the sense of ease, the air of never having prepared, that wins the day. The man who’s all color coordinated is the one, we feel, who blatantly tries too hard. His clothing sends a clear message: he’s insecure.

Concealing art and effort have their own national manifestations, I’m told. Like Boyer says, there’s the Italian sprezzatura, there’s American cool, and then there’s a distinct British rumpled nonchalance. You can see the latter in upper-class people or people who like to pose as upper-class people: they never have to try very hard. If they do it right, you won’t know the difference. In fact, you may think their work and life are  just a well-rehearsed stage show they just happen to effortlessly star in.

If you approach complaining about being busy as a question of manners (as opposed to a question of style), people might take offence. Is it rude say you are stressed out and overworked? I don’t think so, especially if it is a call for help or, as is more often the case, empty small talk. However, I think the small talk in this case may drown out actual calls for help. In this sense, it would be rude to talk casually about stress, because you may be making light of someone’s real distress.

What, then, should be done? Talking explicitly about how people use talk about being busy is crossing the line in both cases, so a smartass meta-analysis is not the way to go in casual conversation. Perhaps the thing to say is: “I won’t keep you, since you are so busy.” Or: “Let’s talk some other time when we both have the time.” Both of these options seem fine to me. What you shouldn’t do, I think, is start comparing notes about how busy both of you are. If you do that, at the end you will be two extremely busy people wasting time talking about how busy you are. And that’s just silly.

Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

Menswear Books: True Style by G. Bruce Boyer

 

true style

G. Bruce Boyer is probably the best writer on menswear writing today. He is my personal style icon and also that of Simon Crompton of Permanent Style. He dresses with apparent ease and tries to teach others how to succeed in looking like they dressed themselves effortlessly in a kind of crumpled elegance that nevertheless projects a certain type of care one takes in living one’s life. The effect of course demands great care: one’s wardrobe must be sufficient and each item of clothing requires thought.

I’ve written about Bruce Boyer before and instead of going through the book like a traditional review, I would rather like to discuss three points he makes in True Style that have opened my eyes to a few things. He repeats these points in other writings as well, but everything is condensed nicely in True Style in insightful and relaxed prose.

First, Boyer has ideas about dressing up and dressing down. There is a whole cultural history attached to all this, but we can use a James Dean or a Marlon Brando as a shorthand. “The male rebel proletariat”, as Boyer calls this figure, became the norm after they appeared on the scene. The T-shirt and jeans combo is great, but what it is is essentially a way of dressing down. Instead of looking up trying to emulate the upper classes, dressing in this particular uniform means you are attaching yourself to a certain ideological position in US history that finds its representative examples in the lower classes. I have nothing against this and really don’t think of style in terms of value, but I have noticed family and friends get irritated when I relate Boyer’s point to them. Not too long ago, a few of my friends were enthusiastic about denim named after an infamous prison. That takes dressing down all the way to prison. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I resisted the urge to discuss Boyer with them. After noticing that people do dress up or down according to ways they observe and value others in terms of social stratification, it’s hard not to notice the choices people around you make.

Second, being comfortable in your clothes is of course important, but looking like you’ve been accustomed to wearing them may be even more important. Boyer writes about the English country house aesthetic, the way they are always a bit dishevelled and disorderly. In terms of clothing, there are associations with old money and sprezzatura, but it really comes down to having clothes you love and wear all the time. They may take some time getting used to. A suit, for example, is clothing you do have to learn to wear. If you are uncomfortable in your suit, you may not look very good. Clothes should look worn and familiar, because they are your clothes and you live in them. If they are a bit scruffy, good! If there is a nick in your shoes that cannot be quite polished away, even better! (This does not apply to evening dress, but that’s another matter.)

Third, there are days when I feel I need to wear a suit and I think Boyer has managed to explain why. The sense of occasion is lost when casualization takes over. I speak in front of people for a living, and it is not always the best idea to show up for work in jeans and a T-shirt. This is not because there is something inherently inappropriate in jeans and T-shirts, but because I do need to have a sense of formality when I do what I do. It helps me take my work seriously. Again, there is nothing wrong with casual clothing, but there are situations where I need a bit more support. Clothing is part of the professional arsenal of a man, Boyer says, and it should be used as a tool to get things done. We can talk of the aesthetics of clothing all we want, but there is also a utilitarian side to all this. Sometimes you just need a grey flannel suit to finish a job.

There is of course more to say about all this, but it’s easier to simply direct everyone into the capable hands of Bruce Boyer himself. His writing is thoughtful and elegant. He introduces his readers to brief snippets of cultural history that contextualize our choices of clothing. He teaches readers how to “be themselves on purpose”. I don’t think I’ve read anything poorly written or thought out by him. It’s all good stuff, but True Style will give you a book-length text of Boyer’s best. Go read it!

Menswear Books: Savile Row by James Sherwood

Savile Row SherwoodMy latest acquisition was Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke by James Sherwood. I bought it on a whim at my local bookshop, and I’m very glad I did. It has a foreword by the wonderful Tom Ford that is about the length of your average tweet and about as informative. We all love Tom Ford, but I bet he wrote it on his phone and just texted it in. I must say that I did not have high expectations for the rest of the book either. However, it turned out to be very informative and entertaining. It is informative thanks to a wealth of historical information; it really is a well-researched work that you want to go back to again and again. It has the appearance of a coffee table book, but it would be insulting to call it that. You can read it as a coffee table book, because the illustrations alone make for an entertaining read, but there is a lot more to it than just pretty pictures.

The book begins with a historical introduction and the rest of it is divided thematically into topics such as royalty, fashion, uniforms, Hollywood actors and the recent renaissance of men’s bespoke tailoring. The subchapters, on the other hand, are mostly labelled by tailoring establishments on Savile Row. There are too many to list here, but I assume most of them are mentioned. The author obviously loves Savile Row and all the businesses are described expertly and appreciatively. The descriptions are engaging and link everything to the amazing history of Savile Row tailoring. The final sections of the book deal briefly with grooming, shirtmakers, shoemakers, umbrellas and the like. It closes with some info on the way suits are constructed and a glossary.

In some ways, the book is a long advertisement for Savile Row. Were I more cynical, I might call it cleverly disguised ad copy. I really don’t mind this, because you can learn a lot about the history of tailored clothing as you read. What does bother me a little, however, is that the celebratory rhetoric does not necessarily serve a potential customer very well. For a more closer look at the house styles on Savile Row, I would recommend something like Permanent Style’s review series. As of today, Simon Crompton has reviewed a tux from Richard Anderson, a suit from Henry Poole and a jacket from Anderson and Sheppard. You also get the normally elusive prices listed on the site. A suit from one of the less expensive tailors, Anderson and Sheppard, is listed as £4778.

If you are just a regular guy, paying that much for a suit is probably not feasible. It is an item of clothing for the price of a car. A car will probably be more useful and you can do more with it, but, then again, you don’t wear a car close to your skin all day. It’s a question of choices and if you want a suit by some of the best tailors in the world and can somehow save up five thousand pounds, you might be able to do it. Would it be worth it? It’s difficult to say.

Handmade clothing is out of reach for most people, because it has become a luxury item. This also creates other problems that are not discussed in Sherwood’s book. Some of them are taken up by Bernhard Roetzel in his Essay on Bespoke. With the luxury market being advertised as it is, it is easy to forget that tailors are people too. Things can go wrong, miracles rarely happen and service can be unpleasant. Some of the stuff is clearly overpriced and mistakes can be very expensive. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Because it is a luxury market, the customers are connoisseurs. Menswear writers, Sherwood included, talk fondly of fathers introducing their sons to their tailors when they get their first suit. I doubt this happens that often any more on Savile Row or anywhere else. I personally think a Savile Row suit would be wasted on me like an exceptionally fine cigar or a vintage bottle of wine: I would not be able to appreciate it fully, because I really don’t know enough about suits to do so. Should I study the matter further, knowing more would make me more critical and disappointments more likely. It’s a never-ending balancing act which can be fun, but only if you accept that finding something just right is very rare. That is why I think getting a Savile Row suit would be far too stressful even if I could afford one. For everyone but the very rich, it’s not, as it should be, simply clothing. It’s clothing with an aura and a glorious past.

Wine is off the menu for me these days, but I’m happy with a decent cigar and clothes that fit me fairly well. For anyone striving for connoisseurship, however, it is more or less necessary to read something like Sherwood’s Savile Row. If you really aspire to be one, you should consider it homework.

Menswear Books: Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser

alan-flussers-dressing-the-man-1.jpgWhen I bought my copy of Alan Flusser’s Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion, it was not the book I was looking for. I was actually searching for one of his other books I had heard about on Styleforum (either Style and the Man or Clothes and the Man), but they were unavailable. In any case, Flusser is very famous for being the guy who outfitted Michael Douglas in the 80s film Wall Street. The fashions in the film are not at all to my taste, but it is obvious to everyone who watches it that Flusser was very good at his craft. An article in The Rake tells me that Gordon Gekko’s wardrobe ate up nearly a fifth of the budget. I also always enjoyed the anecdote about Michael Douglas’s shirts requiring shoulder padding, because his natural shoulders were not photogenic enough.

lumberghThe Gordon Gekko outfits have now come full circle and become meme-worthy satires of the aspiring middle-management guy in his power tie, but Flusser’s books are still very good reading. Dressing the Man is more focused on clothing than Bernard Roetzel’s Gentleman and there are fewer lifestyle items. Rather, Flusser is wonderfully obsessed with proportion, pattern and color. In short, he talks about classic menswear a lot and has his feet firmly planted in the golden age of men’s fashion. There are a lot of wonderful pictures and drawings to help you figure out what you should wear and how. It’s a great practical guide with a solid historical perspective.

One of the things you could be critical of in Flusser’s book is his way of dressing people based on their body type and complexion. Can’t I wear what I want to wear? If there is a garment whose color does not really suit my complexion and I really like it, should I just simply skip it and adhere to Flusser’s rules? When it comes to proportion and silhouette, I think you should listen to Flusser. It’s obviously something he knows a lot about and he is also very good at translating that knowledge into something the rest of us can understand. With color and complexion, I would be more adventurous were I someone who likes to experiment with color. There are restrictions your body shape and complexion place on your clothes, but there are other factors at play as well. For one thing, fun. Clothes are a serious matter sometimes, but they should also bring you joy. One of the joys of wearing clothes is breaking the rules. So, I guess what I want to say is that you should read Flusser, learn the rules and then break them wisely.

Menswear Books: Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel

A friend of mine recently asked about a menswear book I had mentioned on social media somewhere and I thought it would be interesting to write a few reviews of the ones I have in my bookshelf. I should preface this by saying that I am not an expert. If you want expert advice on a large number of menswear books, I would suggest you go to the Gentleman’s Gazette’s list of a 100 menswear books. After that, you might want to come back to this blog to read about my take on the subject.

gentleman roetzelOne of the first books I bought was Bernard Roetzel’s Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion (2009). I was looking for menswear books by Alan Flusser after reading the A Suitable Wardrobe blog. Out of curiosity, I ordered Roetzel’s book as well. More recently, I found his interview on the Gentleman’s Gazette YouTube channel and then followed him on Instagram. I also found out that he writes for Parisian Gentleman. But when I first bought Gentleman, the book was a random find and I had no idea what to expect.

The foreword told me that my copy was the revised new edition and that the original was ten years old already. Some of the information in it has not aged at all, but other things do seem a bit outdated. A section on tobacco, for example, does not seem quite appropriate any more – and I say this as a casual pipe smoker. Nevertheless, it goes over the basics very well. There is a lot of material in the book on a number of topics and I will not even try to summarize it all.  It tells you a little about grooming, clothes (of course), accessories, cultural differences and a few other gentlemanly activities. It will tell you how to fold your pocket square, how to pack your suitcase, what to wear on a fishing trip and how to wear tails. It is very nicely illustrated as well.

I understand that Roetzel’s book was a pioneering work. Today, there is more information available than we can handle, so times have definitely changed. This book required old-fashioned research and lots of time on the road and in the library. I guess the one critical thing I could say about it is that it does not go into great detail when discussing most of its topics. If you go read online forums today, people are obsessively geeking out over every little detail of every garment or code of conduct they can think of.

Roetzel deals in breadth in this book, which I do find a bit healthier than debating the merits of the hand-stitched Italian buttonhole by various regions of the country, but this unfortunately has to be counted as the book showing its age. You can still read it as a small encyclopaedia of menswear and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you want something a little more detailed, you might want to look elsewhere. For example, you may want to try Roetzel’s more recent writing. Having said all that, I do think this one is a must-read if only because it is one of the classics of the genre.

Thought is back in style

BrummellDighton1805Beau Brummell, the famous dandy, said: “If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed.” Brummell, a man mostly known for being looked at by John Bull who thought Brummell was splendidly dressed, said many things. Most of them don’t really matter, because he was known for one simple thing: that he dressed extremely well. After mentioning the quip, most menswear writers continue with an explanation of sprezzatura, the meticulous art of looking like you don’t really care what you look like. Few seem to think about what an obviously mad statement this was for a man lived for being seen and looked at.

George Frazier, in his well-known article “The Art of Wearing Clothes“, was one menswear writer who bothered to explain, in detail, what Brummell meant. He wrote:

Prior to Brummell, men had dressed to almost freakish excess. Thus, according to Hayden’s Dictionary of Dates, Sir Walter Raleigh wore: ‘… a white-satin-pinked vest close-sleeved to the wrist, and over the body a doublet finely flowered, and embroidered with pearls, and in the feather of his hat a large ruby and pearl drop at the bottom of the sprig in place of a button. His breeches’ etc.

Brummell’s clothes, then, were subtle in an age when people looked ridiculous. But he still wanted to be noticed for the way he dressed. That is why he dressed down in simple equestrian clothing.

The casualization of dress has continued ever since and now we are down to emulating what G. Bruce Boyer in his book True Style calls the “the male rebel proletariat as superhero.” That basically means the James Dean or young Marlon Brando look. I’m all for it, but something often goes unnoticed when people dress like this. People who habitually dress in the rebel proletariat superhero uniform like to say they don’t really think about their clothes. I’m sure they do, because Levi’s jeans, boots and leather jackets are not inexpensive. If they really don’t think about it, someone else has done the thinking for them. Probably the person trying to sell them those jeans. My attempt at a fancy way of putting it (and my point) would be that the observance of social stratification and identification are always present in the way we dress.

It is pleasant to speculate what will happen to fashions in the future. In his article “Dress Up” Boyer does just that and thinks about a number of possibilities. One of them is

the eminently sensible argument that the jettisoning of the tailored wardrobe is merely a part of the larger and ongoing “democratization” of dress that started to standardize the wardrobe with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and whereby we may all eventually be encased in the same synthetic coverall and molded plastic footwear.

That is the logical end point for dressing down, sure. But if you take a look at menswear today, you will notice that the Crocs are not happening. Rather, I find that fewer men are parroting either Brummell’s strange views or anything else. It seems that a new awareness of dress as something that cannot be overlooked or glossed over with banalities is emerging. By this I mean that there is much more discussion about dressing up or down in general in magazines, books and especially online. Laying down simple Brummellian dictums or repeating inflexible rules does not seem to cut it for the fashionable. In other words, ignorance (wilful or otherwise) does not seem to be in fashion any more. We might still be on our way to the Crocs and polyester overalls, but should we ever go there, there will be plenty of lively debate along the way.